Belgium Museum Will Tell Story of Red Star Line That Carried Jews to America

Chronicling the Ships that Brought Millions to Freedom

Precious Cargo: Ships carried people, petroleum and grain.
John S. Johnston/Library of Congress
Precious Cargo: Ships carried people, petroleum and grain.

By Molly Arost Staub

Published June 04, 2013, issue of June 07, 2013.
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The story of Jewish immigration to America will soon be retold in Antwerp, Belgium.

A museum dedicated to the Red Star Line, the shipping operation that carried more than 2 million people to the United States from 1873 to 1934 — many of them Jews — will open in Antwerp in September.

Founded in Philadelphia in the 1870s, the Red Star Line was a joint operation founded by a local businessman along with two Belgian investors to transport petroleum, grain and people to and from Europe. The line had ports in Philadelphia, New York City, Antwerp, and in Liverpool and Southampton in the United Kingdom. While many first- and second-class passengers boarded the Red Star Line as tourists, the ships also accommodated hundreds of steerage passengers each — mostly Jews who were fleeing Eastern Europe.

Plans for the Red Star Line Museum began in 2005, when the city of Antwerp purchased three decaying buildings on the Antwerp harbor that originally served the ship line. At the time of the purchase, the buildings were owned by a private harbor company, which had slated them for redevelopment as apartments.

“Some people in the city started to realize that these are historical buildings, and we can’t just put apartments there,” said Ben Van Alboom, project manager of the Red Star Line Museum, who is promoting the museum in the United States.

The vice mayor of Antwerp, Philip Heylen, pushed the project forward; about 85 percent of the cost of the $25 million facility was covered by public funding.

In the museum, a timeline of human migration includes notes on 20 famous migrants and then the historical exhibition includes 20 personal stories of passengers who traveled on the Red Star Line. Composer Irving Berlin was a passenger and appears in the timeline; his family loaned his transposing piano (a rare kind of piano that automatically transposes music from one key to another) to the museum. Albert Einstein was another famous Red Star traveler; a letter he penned on Red Star Line stationery announcing his resignation from the Prussian Academy of Sciences is also on loan at the museum. He apparently wrote it aboard ship as he fled the Nazis.


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